The Beatles single greatest achievement? Or sprawling self-indulgent mess?
In February 1968 The Beatles flew from London to India, to join the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at his luxurious Meditation Academy located at Rishikesh, where for $350 a day one could chant, practise Yoga and, well I guess meditate. What The Fab Four didn’t realise was that this diminutive “giggling guru” was more interested in making money from his famous disciples than he was in offering them any kind of spiritual guidance. Though it wasn’t only The Beatles who had been drawn in by the Maharishi’s promise of enlightenment. Mike love of The Beach Boys was there, along with Mia Farrow, who was recovering from her recent divorce from Frank Sinatra.
Being the cynical Englishmen that they were, soon the whole ashram experience began to unravel. Ringo was the first to depart (apparently he didn’t like the food). Next was Paul McCartney and his girlfriend Jane Asher, followed by John Lennon and George Harrison, after discovering that their guru had been seducing young women (not to mention stashing funds away into a Swiss bank account). Realising they had been conned, the band reconvened in England, and immediately set about forming the Apple Corporation, which would look after all their business affairs and serve as a base for future Beatles product.
But the whole experience (or experiment) was not a complete waste of time, because during their two months stay in India, The Beatles had written some thirty songs, virtually the entire basis for The White Album. And although it was recorded in an atmosphere of extreme tension (Ringo actually left the group temporarily), it consists of some of their finest compositions.
This double album ranges from the pop caricature of “Back in the U.S.S.R.,” “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road,” to pleasant pastoral numbers such as “Blackbird” and “Dear Prudence.” We have the rock-surrealism of “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” (with Lennon crying out that he needs a fix), “Honey Pie,” and “Glass Onion.”
The Beatles also prove that they weren’t incapable of turning up the amps and belt it out (“Helter Skelter,” “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide Except Me and My Monkey”), most notable example being “Revolution 1” (predating Marc Bolin in sound and vocal style), a stinging rebuke by Lennon aimed squarely at every wannabe radical. It was also John’s first serious attempt at writing a political song.
Other gems include “I’m So Tired,” Lennon’s ode to insomnia, the suicidal “Yer Blues,” and McCartney’s utterly endearing “Rocky Racoon.” In contrast McCartney manages to give himself a tonsillectomy on the energetic “Birthday,” before going back to kindergarten with the annoyingly catchy “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.”
Lennon’s more tender side is revealed on the beautiful “Julia” (written for his deceased mother, and probably Yoko too), and the melancholic “Cry Baby Cry.”
Not to be outdone by his elder musical siblings, George Harrison comes up trumps with the absolutely stunning “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” a song which seemed to come out of nowhere (apparently both Paul and John originally rejected it for inclusion on the album), showing that he had grown considerably as a songwriter since Revolver. Clapton also does a stellar job (as always) playing lead guitar, giving it that extra gravitas, to the extent that any listener would be hard pressed to imagine the song without his contribution.
“Revolution 9” was completely avant-garde, revealing the strong influence that Yoko was having on Lennon at that time. More montage than actual tune, John employed a whole range of tape loops which he had discovered in EMI’s extensive tape library. Depending on one’s taste, the track could either be a whole lot of rubbish, or a genuine surrealistic masterpiece.
“Good Night” ends the record on a nostalgic note, full of heavenly harp and 1930’s Hollywood inspired string arrangements. A strange way to finish to be sure, but then The Beatles could be a pretty strange band.
When compared to Sergeant Pepper, at least song for song, The White Album easily wins hands down, in my estimation, even if not too many of their fans both then and now might agree. Pepper’s is more celebrated, true, and the LP most people tend to think of and remember. Yet The White Album (it didn’t really have a name by the way) contains the group’s richest and most diverse collection of material ever issued in the one package. Yes, many have argued over the years (including George Martin) that this sprawling double LP would have greatly benefited from being edited down to a single disc. But in this digital age in which we find ourselves, anyone can create their very own compilation of what they deem to be the LP which should have been.
Ultimately what these four extremely talented if somewhat troubled individuals gave the world was a compendium of music that was not only a reflection of the period in which it was made, but also ahead of it as well – which is surely the reason why we are still listening to it today, almost some fifty years later.